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Farmers more to blame for TB spread than badgers, says Gove disease review chief

The head of the Government’s new bovine TB strategy review has said farmers should shoulder more of the blame for the disease’s spread than badgers.

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Farmers more to blame for TB spread than badgers, says Gove disease review chief

Professor Sir Charles Godfray, who was put in charge of the review of the 25-year bovine TB strategy commissioned by Defra Secretary Michael Gove in February, made the remarks at a press conference ahead of the report’s publication this week.

 

Asked whether he could put a figure on the contribution made to the spread of TB by both the farming industry and badgers, he said: “I really wish I could give you a straight answer, we would love to do that, but it would be wrong to put numbers on it.

 

“[But] if I was to say one more than the other, I would definitely say it was the cattle-to-cattle side.”

 

Despite these comments, the report does acknowledge a need for badger culling, though recommends it take place periodically, not continuously.


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Sir Charles told journalists at the press conference it would be ‘wrong’ to describe the wildlife issue as a ‘distraction’, and said the Randomised Badger Culling Trial showed culling reduces herd breakdowns by about 15 per cent.

 

The main focus of the review, however, was ramping up cattle controls and on-farm biosecurity while improving the governance of the TB regime.

 

“A very unfortunate consequence of the controversy around badger culling and the politicisation of the debate has been a deflection of focus from what can be done by the individual farmer and by the livestock industry to help control the disease,” reads the report.

 

“In particular, the poor take up of on-farm biosecurity measures and the extent of trading in often high-risk cattle is, we believe, severely hampering disease control measures.”

The review made a number of recommendations to improve the situation, such as using the new Livestock Information Service (LIS) to create a usable index or ‘score’ which would allow farmers to trade based on disease risk.

 

The score of an animal would be calculated by looking at its location history, including information about the density of wildlife reservoirs on-farm, plus individual testing records and those of other animals in the herds it had been part of.

 

In the report, it was suggested that this risk assessment score could be presented to potential purchasers in sales catalogues and on large screens at ring side in auction marts.

 

Studies were cited which estimated a voluntary risk-based trading scheme might reduce the number of infected animals traded by 23 per cent and a statutory scheme by 37 per cent.

 

Risk

 

The authors of the review also proposed that a farmer’s willingness to change his or her trading behaviour based on disease risk should be rewarded in a new, Government-backed insurance programme which would replace compensation payments.

 

“The compensation scheme for herd breakdowns could be transformed into a mandatory insurance scheme,” the report reads.

 

“The premiums would be made up of two parts, one determined by geographical zone – either the existing High Risk Area (HRA), Edge Area (EA) or Low Risk Area (LRA) categorisation or something that evolved from it, and the other a variable component which is influenced by farmer behaviours such as degree of risk-based trading, adoption of biosecurity measures, and engagement in measures to control the disease in wildlife, for example culling or vaccination.”

 

The authors go on to suggest that the component of the premium based on geographical zone could be subsidised by Government, or transferred in part or full to industry, which could equalise the premiums through a levy.

Other recommendations in the review

  • Create a new, arms-length Government body to carry out most of the disease control operations currently performed by the Animal and Plant Health Agency, Natural England and Local Authorities. High-level policy would continue to be set by Defra Ministers, but it is hoped centralising functions would make the process of managing TB breakdowns more efficient, avoid duplication and allow greater agility in responding to new technology
  • Investigate the feasibility of replacing ear tags with microchips
  • Carry out an analysis of the regulatory and economic drivers for cattle movements with a view to reducing them overall
  • Use post-Brexit agricultural policy to reduce incentives for local cattle movements to Temporary Land Associations
  • Invest in the creation of a DIVA (differentiating infected from vaccinated animals) test to allow cattle to be vaccinated after Brexit
  • Invest in the creation of an immunocontraceptive for badgers which lowers fertility rates
  • Use a more sensitive test, such as the SICT, in the HRA and EA to detect infections in these regions as early as possible and reduce the risk of missing infected animals. It was also suggested that the caudaul fold test, where tuberculin is injected into the flap at the base of the tail, and which is safer and quicker for vets to perform, could be used after Brexit. It is not currently approved in the EU, but is used in the USA, Canada and New Zealand in conjunction with other tests for reactors
  • For herds with persistent and recurrent infections, herds in cull areas where wildlife must not be re-infected, herds in the EA where preventing spread to the LRA is a priority and herds in emerging hotspots in the LRA, the review recommends combining a skin test, the interferon gamma test and the IDEXX ELISA serological test as each test detects infected animals that the other tests miss
  • Reduce the number of consultations on TB to avoid ‘consultation fatigue’, seeking views only on broad strategy and not operational decisions which must be made quickly
  • Increase use of whole-herd slaughter in the LRA when there is clear evidence of multiple infections in a herd associated with risky or reckless purchasing behaviours
  • Explore new gene editing techniques to improve TB resistance in cattle
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